Editor’s note: Daniel Walber’s review originally ran during NYFF 2012, but we’re re-running it as the film’s limited theatrical release begins this weekend.
The personal is political. This adage, one of the seminal concepts to come out of the Feminist Movement in the late 1960s, began with a very specific meaning. The idea was that, given oppression on a societal level, the specific problems facing women in their daily lives necessarily took on larger significance. While it wasn’t actually written down until a 1969 essay by Carol Hanisch, it had been an unspoken truth for a long time. Seven years earlier, when the Cuban Missile Crisis rocked the world’s already fragile sense of security, it manifested in the way that revolutionary men took to the streets yet still expected nothing more of the women in their lives than a well-cooked plate of food and a prompt cup of tea.
In her new film, Sally Potter takes stays true to the initial spirit of that revolutionary aphorism while simultaneously making it double. Ginger and Rosa tells the tale of a teenage girl adrift in London during that panic-stricken summer of 1962. With a relaxed sense of style and a precisely poetic screenplay, Potter has created a film of twinned metaphors. The personal crises of her characters stand in for the anxieties of a nuclear world, while the activist Left and its political struggles against the bomb echo the deeply intimate troubles of teenage love and family strife. The personal becomes political while the political bleeds into the personal.
Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) were born on the same day in 1945. The film is set in the summer of their 17th year, when they have reached the height of teenage best friendship. They wear all the same clothes, keep their hair the same length, and spend every waking moment together. That is, until Ginger’s father begins to disrupt the balance. Roland (Alessandro Nivola) is a radical pacifist and revolutionary whose dour charisma turns him into a hero for the girls. Of course, his resistance to traditional notions of family also makes him a mediocre parent and a terrible husband to Ginger’s mother, Natalie (Christina Hendricks).
Ginger and Rosa choose to ignore that, seduced by the danger and excitement of Roland’s dark coats and beatnik radicalism. Eventually Natalie and Roland split, and Ginger moves in with her father. Her anxiety reaches a peak when Rosa and her father become closer, threatening to demolish the last close relationship in Ginger’s life. In response she throws herself into demonstrations against nuclear armament, which only become more intense as the Cuban Missile Crisis arrives. Just as her private world is crashing down around her, so too might the global stage be obliterated with the press of a button.
This rendition of a Left-wing political family is not meant to be a schematic or complete vision of London’s radical community. Rather, Potter is looking at the intersection of family drama and pacifist activism. Like a novel by Doris Lessing from the same period, ideology and rhetoric exist in the same world as love and betrayal. The trauma of growing up and the terror of a nuclear holocaust are one and the same thing if you’re a teenager. If you’re in a political family, in which your parents are both artists and all of their family friends are activists, the constant ideological discussions further blur the distinction.
All of this is artfully arranged and organized by the expertly poetic screenplay. Taking advantage of Ginger’s ambition as a writer, Potter opens her text up to literary experimentation. The rehearsed yet passionate language of revolution blends effortlessly with the hesitance of youth and a subtle yet assured style continues into the visual character of Ginger and Rosa. The identical sweaters and coats worn by the girls early on in the film are muted and articulate representations of character rather than brightly colored declarations of symbolism. Their hair as well takes on almost iconic significance, Fanning’s long red mane pouring forth into the wind in one scene from her father’s boat.
That juxtaposition of unkempt youthful style and the shadowy, ambivalent sea is reminiscent of a time when coming-of-age movies could be about more than just adolescence. Far from the nostalgia of Not Fade Away, Potter’s film is closer in style and spirit to The 400 Blows. And while it might not be as groundbreaking or magnificent as Truffaut’s masterpiece, Ginger and Rosa is a welcome return to a time when the experience of teenagers could open up the experience of us all.
The Upside: Elle Fanning’s naturalistic performance is breathtaking, and a major step forward for the actress.
The Downside: The film’s climax hovers on the edge of melodramatic excess, and is the weakest part.
On the Side: Christina Hendricks briefly plays the accordion in a moment of late night loneliness, making this one of three NYFF films to feature that eccentric and soulful instrument.